George Shima, “Potato King”

In an earlier blog, I addressed San Joaquin County's lesser-known Chinese-American "potato king," Chin Lung (January 25, 2012). Here's the story of the County's nationally known "potato king," Japanese-American George Shima.

Japanese immigrant Ushijima Seikichi, later known as George Shima, arrived in San Joaquin County in 1889 and worked his way from migrant laborer to farmer in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Shima's innovative farming techniques produced top-quality potatoes, which brought a premium price on the market. The soft peat soil was ideal for growing smooth-skinned, high-quality potatoes, and Shima perfected the sub-irrigation of the crop using narrow trenches, or "spud ditches," every thirty rows of potato plants.

Shima was a moderately successful potato farmer in the early 1900s, when he struck up an important friendship with Lee Allen Phillips, a Los Angeles attorney, financier, and Delta reclamation agent.

He and Lee Phillips…had a lot of confidence in each other. Phillips recognized Shima as the producer, the man who could grow things. Shima saw in Phillips the man who made the big deals in land, who got the backing.… [They] had a unique arrangement. Just two men, in mutual confidence, risking hundreds of thousands of dollars on the other fellow's honesty and reliability—Phillips, the dreamer, and Shima, the man who made a lot of dreams come true. (J. C. McCarthy, former superintendent of operations for Lee Phillips, Stockton Record.)

Phillips would purchase Delta land, arrange for construction of levees to reclaim a tract or island, then lease the land to Shima, who moved in crews of Asian workers to clear the tules and plant an initial grain crop. After that initial crop, potatoes were planted. Shima leased as many as fourteen thousand acres from Phillips.

George Shima (seated), with lieutenants Konkie (left) and Ito (right), ca. 1920.

George Shima (seated), with lieutenants Konkie (left) and Ito (right), ca. 1920.

By 1906, Shima was growing more potatoes than any other farmer in the world. He became famous nationally when the Stockton Record published a widely reprinted story on "the potato king."

Shima had three riverboats built in Stockton to transport his potatoes to the San Francisco Bay Area for wholesale distribution. Shima's lavish yearly entertainments for bankers, produce merchants, and journalists became legendary. He, Lee Phillips, and other capitalists financed the construction of the Stockton Hotel, the luxury hotel that still stands in downtown Stockton.

Shima first purchased—rather than leased—Delta farmland in 1910: eight hundred acres just north of the potato farm of the Chinese "potato king" Chin Lung on what is now known as the Shima Tract. A year later he bought eight hundred acres on McDonald Island, west of Stockton. His success, visibility, and these land purchases apparently contributed to the statewide agitation for the Alien Land Law, which a couple years later forbid Japanese from purchasing land and severely restricted land leasing.

Shima was a major stockholder in California Delta Farms, formed in 1912 by Lee Phillips through the merger of six Delta land companies. California Delta Farms owned 37,400 acres of Delta farmland.

In the 1920s, Shima had to dismantle his "potato empire" due to the Alien Land Laws. Shima became a leader in the fight against these laws. He was president of the national Japanese Association of America from 1908 through 1925, the most important leader for Japanese in the United States.

Shima also left a legacy of supporting students attending the University of California and Stanford University. He is memorialized in San Joaquin County by the Shima Center at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton.

The San Joaquin County Historical Museum had an exhibit on George Shima before I became executive director six years ago. We still get frequent requests from Museum visitors for directions to that prior exhibit. I hope we can again tell the Shima story in an exhibit in the near future. If you have ideas, artifacts, or photos that might be included, please e-mail me at davidstuart@sanjoaquinhistory.org.

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